Study: Grazing not a factor in Murphy blaze
Agencies should investigate grazing as fire tool, report says
Restrictions on cattle grazing in the Jarbidge area didn't really contribute to the massive, 600,000-acre Murphy Complex Fire in 2007, states a new report compiled by a team from the Bureau of Land Management, University of Idaho and other state and federal researchers.
The study found that any effect grazing, or the lack of it, had on the fire was far overshadowed by the extreme temperatures and other weather factors at the time. But targeted grazing could have the potential to affect fire behavior in "less intense" conditions, the authors state, and should be investigated further as another fire management tool.
The peer-reviewed study was released last week after an Aug. 28 presentation for the BLM and the other agencies that contributed, said Heather Feeney, state BLM spokeswoman. It's now posted on a University of Idaho Web site for anyone to read.
The authors also call for more-refined fire models to be developed for rangeland fires. The models most commonly used were developed for forests, which burn differently, Feeney said. But that does not mean the grazing study is not accurate, she said, citing the peer review as assurance that the science was vetted.
The presentation was also attended by a few outside groups who asked to participate, including representatives of the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group that has opposed ranchers' push for expandedgrazing. In a release put out Tuesday, the group appeared delighted to note members of the study team were "flummoxed" by their own findings.
"They couldn't show that levels of grazing made any real difference in reducing the impacts of the Murphy Complex wildfire," said Katie Fite, WWP's biodiversity director, "but it looks as if BLM and the public lands ranchers are still trying to promote increased grazing disturbance and turn our public lands into dust bowls."
That assertion is completely wrong, Feeney said, pointing to repeated recommendations in the study against large-scale grazing as one example. The BLM simply wants to add to its repertoire of ways to prevent intense fires.
"I don't think there's anyone who would say that there's no need for having as many tools as possible for fuels management," she said.
State Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, is a rancher and one of the more vocal critics who called for a change in grazing practices after the Murphy fire. After a first cursory read of the study on Thursday, he said he was encouraged by the suggestion to look further into grazing as a fire management option.
"If that could happen, it's to the benefit of all the other (public lands) uses out there," he said. "Again, they need to use all the tools in the toolbox, if you will."
He also noted the study team's description of the Murphy fire as a "perfect storm." Fire officials on the East Slide Rock Ridge Fire currently burning in the Jarbidge Wilderness have used similar terms for their fire, Brackett said, and he questioned how unique the "phenomena" are if they've happened for a few years in a row now.
"If they keep happening, then there's maybe more there," he said.
BLM officials are eager to use the study as a starting point for more research, Feeney said, cooperating with state and other federal agencies to do so. The next step will be a technical report gathering all existing data on grazing as a fire tool, she said. Scientists will move over the next couple of years to organize and begin a pilot project or two to test the effect of grazing, including an environmental analysis of any test ground before a project begins, she said.
Nate Poppino may be reached at 208-735-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.